On July 31, Magnolia Pictures and directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet from Stardom) will release Best of Enemies, a film based on the famous 1968 political debate between leftist writer and polemicist Gore Vidal and conservative TV host William F. Buckley Jr. The archive of William F. Buckley’s thirty-three-year-long television series Firing Line is among the most used collections at Hoover Library & Archives; it includes broadcasts, transcripts, and administrative files, some of which illuminate the notorious animosity between Buckley and Vidal.
Magnolia Picture’s documentary traces the origin and escalation of one of the most widely watched and talked about public debates in television history. In 1968 ABC, facing the lowest rankings of US broadcast television networks and a season of political national conventions to cover, hired the country’s two most outspoken political pundits to debate the presidential candidates and each other on camera for a series of ten episodes. William F. Buckley Jr., host of Firing Line and a leading conservative, squared off with Gore Vidal, essayist, self-identifying liberal, and author of provocative novels such as Myra Breckinridge. Although on opposite poles of the political sphere, both public intellectuals were known for erudition and rapier wit. The war of words raged on for weeks in front of an entranced US viewing audience of tens of thousands, who tuned in to hear both the hurling of insults and the men’s informed opinions about freedom of speech, the conflict in Vietnam, and legal rights for homosexuals. The spectacle hit its crescendo when Buckley, after being called a “crypto-Nazi” by Vidal, offered to punch Vidal in the face. The ensuing vitriolic bickering was then moderated by an ABC news anchorman, but nonetheless the precedent for much of the heated talk show styles audiences enjoy today was set by the tone of Buckley’s and Vidal’s on-air antagonism.
The Firing Line Broadcast Records at Hoover L&A indicate that the famed debate between the two men did not end in 1968. Buckley and Vidal continued to criticize each other ideologically and personally for years afterward in the pages of Esquire magazine, leading to numerous suits and countersuits for libel. A 1971 Firing Line program entitled “Some Reflections on Television Programming” offered the following exchange between Buckley and journalist and author Jeff Greenfield, an on-air guest:
Greenfield: “If I wanted to book a show in which I know the sparks would fly . . . I would definitely have Gore Vidal and Bill Buckley on my television show. I’m not sure that it would contribute to the general knowledge of mankind, but I would guess that the rematch of the great conflict [at the 1968 Democratic Convention] would attract people precisely because it held out the possibility of something . . .”
Greenfield: “Let’s say existential.”
Best of Enemies will release in theaters on July 31, 2015. DVDs of Firing Line episodes from the Hoover collection are available through Amazon Instant Video. For digital copies of Firing Line transcripts please contact the Hoover Institution Archives at hoover_visuals [at] stanford.edu.